One of the most popular kids on the metal block these days is Progressive Metal. The style in its rocky incarnation has been around for a while, of course. Just think about old rock bands like Jethro Tull, Kansas, or Uriah Heep, who got famous by not adjusting to the norm. Just to name a very few.
Over the last years, some sort of renaissance saw the light of day in the prog genre. Not all is good and groovy, though. Frankly, you need to beware of many bands that adorn themselves with the accouterments of Progressive Rock and Metal. Hit a few djents, deliver some odd drum work and yell weirdly about the soundscape. And – wham – you are in business – supposedly. In short, whatever does not easily fit into the classifier nuts’ framework is called progressive.
The bands in the genre are legion. Yet – as always – very good quality outfits exist. We have powerful bands delivering high caliber prog like Opeth, Dream Theater or Steven Wilson and his latest Hand. Cannot. Erase. Then you have those delivering this emotional gut-kick like The Reticent and their true suicidal story.
Now, here we have Haken and their early 2016 album Affinity coming on the scene, three years after the critically acclaimed The Mountain. Their industrial-tinged style sometimes slightly reminiscent of Guilt Machine is technically very savvy. But the album is much more than that. Harking back to the ’80s, Haken project a pretty captivating retro-view of times past. And this starts already with the somewhat austere album cover. You will find an amazing hodgepodge of melodies, hooks, licks, and solos of any kind of flavor. Backed by pretty good lyrics, great vocal delivery, and outstanding drum sorcery.
Affinity.exe gets you an intro of some sputnik type beepery. A scratchy feeling of long-gone mainframe systems. And burpy connections to a fledgling internet, just risen from the ashes of Arpanet. All of that dashed out in green and black glory. With an added whiff of the space tale 2010 that aired back in 1984. Welcome to Progressive Metal, HAL!
The follow-on track Initiate – djent heavy as it may be – really sets the scene for the album to continue down this very road.
The band probably wanted to use these first two tracks as some sort of time machine, getting the fans into this retro mood. And you’ll get exactly that full immersion in a way. But it gets better still: 1985 – track no 3 – expertly takes you further down, back into yonder times where bright colors, garish hairstyles, shoulder pads and Michael Jackson reigned supreme.
The epic, almost 16-minute filet-piece of the album The Architect really embarks on a convoluted journey of confused flavors and tastes. All culminating in some harsh vocals towards the mid-point of the album.
After this track Affinity somewhat loses steam but is for sure not lacking in technical challenges until the very end. I really liked the laid-back track Bound by Gravity at the very end of the record. A dreamy, but still sturdy lesson in creating a stellar prog track from scratch to finish.
Then why am I not dumbfounded by this album as many other listeners before me apparently were?
Well, whenever listening to music it needs to be packed with emotion and laced with passion. It has to connect on an almost ethereal plane, straight docking on to your emotional centers. Like Steven Wilson’s last record, for instance, or Wilderun‘s dreamy, but stellar 2015 epic. Interestingly, Wilson’s previous albums also left me strangely cold and unmoved, even if their technical prowess is outstanding too. Until his 2015 concoction came on-line that changed my view of the band.
Now, instead of seeking out new roads to explore, Haken joined the djent division, populated by the likes of Leprous and their minions. And – lo and behold – I indeed found Einar Solberg – the lead of the latter – on the list of contributors.
Nothing wrong with that, but – again – it gives you this sense of déjà-vu, of predictability that feeds from chaos inherent to some of the prog styles. By comparison, other outfits successfully sought new ways and took some unknown, stony paths, like the youngsters of Frozen Sand and their Italo-rock laced Progressive Metal piece.
So, in the end, Affinity is proof of outstanding quality Progressive Metal, stellar musicianship, and technical prowess. The album is not an easy listen and you probably need a few rounds until you really heard all of the details. On the other hand, the album comes across as quite cold. A monument of technique, pretty much devoid of emotion. Like the story, it is trying to depict.
So, should you buy this record at all? If you are prog specialist, an avid fan or otherwise addicted, go for it. The album gorges with fine, outstanding, highly technical prog that at times sounds otherworldly. But I can guarantee that this type of record will not talk to folks just looking for a nice tune, nor probably the next.
No sir, it won’t.